Sunday, 20 November 2016

How Coding Helps Kids' Creativity

I'm fascinated by how my kids express themselves creatively using technology. They've used Scratch from a young age, starting with me doing the actual coding when they were toddlers and them telling me what they wanted to happen. Later came Minecraft and its amazing redstone circuits and command blocks. 

I was therefore rather bemused when I read Stella O'Malley's article in the Irish Independent today where she argues that parents should be encouraging their children to pursue arts related activities rather than sending them to coding classes. O'Malley is the author of Cotton Wool Kids. 

O'Malley says "many parents are determined to ensure their kids will better understand the complexities of technology, enrolling them in coding classes while they are still very young. This is despite the fact that studies show that every few years 60pc of our technical skills become obsolete - and so any programming languages learned by children today are likely to change utterly by the time they are actually earning adults." 

This is a misconception about what kids are learning when they learn to code. It's very much not about learning the syntax of a specific programming language. I haven't had much need for Spectrum BASIC in my professional career but learning it was one of the key things that helped me understand what I wanted to do in life.  

In my post on graphical vs text-based coding for kids, I give two key reasons why I teach kids to code:

"When teaching young children, my goal is not to teach them vocational skills. I'm trying to teach two major things:
  1. the ability to make projects that are useful / interesting / entertaining to them now and,
  2. transferable knowledge about computational thinking that will enable them to make things that are useful / interesting / entertaining / profitable in the future."
A lot of today's computer scientists learnt to code when they were children. We weren't made to do it! We did it because we were enthralled. Lots of engineers make the connection back to a childhood playing with Meccano / Erector sets. Childhood is about learning how the world works and what interests you. Exploring coding and other tech skills is an important part of that for modern kids. 

I think that first point is really important though. I don't teach kids to code just because it develops skills that will be useful to them in the future, but because it gives them skills that allow them to express themselves now. 

For my kids and a lot of their peers, much of their creativity takes the form of digital making. When my older son was 6 he read a chapter book that really gripped him (Truckers by Terry Pratchett) and immediately went to Scratch and created an animated version of the key plot points (with a bit of help.) Now he's 10 and he recently recreated an iron age roundhouse in Minecraft after an event we attended and he loves programming sheet music in Scratch and then adding animation.  We have fun with projects that mix craft, electronics and coding like our real world Minecraft furnace linked to Minecraft on the Raspberry Pi. 

My 8 year old son loves making crazy contraptions with LEGO Power Functions, SAM Labs, littleBits and with redstone in Minecraft. He takes his interests into Scratch and draws using the paint tool and makes interactive projects. He has built a great game using Bloxels where he's had think about design to make a game that's playable by others. We designed, built and coded a robot pet dog using his ideas. 

It's really interesting that O'Malley's arguments as to why children shouldn't spend their time coding closely match my arguments as to why they should! She quotes Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Child for a Media-Fueled World, "What will make kids successful in this tech-driven world is whether they can think - creatively, innovatively, and expansively - and that is accomplished through free, unstructured play."

I agree with this completely, but technology and coding does offer kids unstructured play. Environments like Scratch and Minecraft remove physical constraints and allow kids to really run away with their imaginations. 

In my 8 year old doesn't play Minecraft, what can I do?, I suggest why kids love Minecraft to much: "A large part of a child's life is constrained by adults. In Minecraft they get to be in control of their environment. They don't have to keep tidying their worlds away at the end of a play session to keep adults happy."

O'Malley particularly criticises organised coding activities. It's interesting, my kids are at their most productive just after they have done a structured activity. They will come back from a Code Club or Coder Dojo (or school Computing lesson) and apply what they have learned. Some parents don't have the time, skills or confidence to develop their kids' tech skills at home so organised activities play a really important role in showing kids what's possible. O'Malley seems to suggest that parents are pushing kids to attend coding classes. In my experience it's the kids doing the pushing!

Of course balance is important, my kids do a variety of activities, love spending time outdoors and have lots of unstructured time (where they often choose to write code ...) Currently most technology is accessed via a screen (though this is starting to change) so I do focus on making sure my kids do plenty of physical activity and things like construction that develop fine motor skills. But for them, the arts and technology are very much linked. 

My kids aren't just interested in coding for the sake of coding, for them coding and other tech and maker skills are ways to express themselves. 

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